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B.C. First Nation joins calls for Ottawa to step in on review of Alberta coal project

A British Columbia First Nation has joined calls for the federal government to step in on the environmental review of a proposed open-pit coal mine in Alberta's Rocky Mountains.

A British Columbia First Nation has joined calls for the federal government to step in on the environmental review of a proposed open-pit coal mine in Alberta's Rocky Mountains.

The Ktunaxa First Nation, the first group outside Alberta to ask for Ottawa's involvement, says it has little faith in the province's ability to hear their concerns over Montem Resources' Tent Mountain project. They say it would have effects beyond the provincial boundary, impairing their ability to practice their treaty rights.

"Due to the location, size and lifespan of the proposed project, the (Ktunaxa) consider that it will likely cause significant adverse impacts on the Ktunaxa Nation’s Indigenous rights and interests," says the letter written to federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson. 

Montem Resources is proposing to resume mining on a site near Coleman, Alta., last mined in 1983. Documents filed with Alberta's regulator say the company would only need 750 hectares. 

But the Ktunaxa say those documents gloss over the fact that Tent Mountain would dump waste rock and water in B.C. and needs permits from B.C. authorities. They also point out Tent Mountain would be immediately adjacent to as many as four other open-pit coal mines.

"The potential for the project to contribute to regional cumulative effects is therefore also a deep concern," the letter states.

The letter points out the mine comes suspiciously close to the production threshold that would automatically trigger a federal review.

"This raises the prospect that the project description has been tailored specifically to avoid a federal (assessment)." 

The Ktunaxa say their experience in the federal-provincial review of Benga Mining's Grassy Mountain project leaves them with little faith in a review conducted only by Alberta. 

"Without a federal environmental assessment, the Alberta government will not conduct any, much less meaningful and legally sufficient, consultation with the (Ktunaxa) to address and accommodate for the Project’s impacts," the letter says. 

The Alberta government has announced plans for a series of five regional meetings with Alberta First Nations, but no plans for B.C. 

The letter says Ktunaxa people fear losing that land for treaty-guaranteed traditional purposes including hunting, gathering, collecting medicines, ceremonies and cultural continuity. 

"These effects will be compounded by the cumulative disturbance to the regional landscape," they write.

Montem Resources did not respond to a request for comment.

The Ktunaxa are only the latest group to request Ottawa join the assessment. The Kainai and Siksika First Nations in southern Alberta, as well as environmental groups and local landowners, have asked for the same.

Montem has stated in investor materials that the federal assessment agency has already ruled that federal participation isn't required. 

However, an email from the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada to Montem suggests that's not the whole story. The company was told the minister could still designate the project for a federal review.

"The Minister of Environment and Climate Change (has) the authority to designate the project if, in the Minister’s opinion, the carrying out of project activities may cause adverse environmental effects or public concerns related to those effects warrant the designation," the email says. 

Wilkinson has until June 1 to respond to those requests. A spokeswoman in his office said the decision will likely come around that date. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 30, 2021.

— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press